Canada made good Monday on speculation that surfaced two weeks ago regarding the country's intentions to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol.
Speaking at a news conference in Ottawa, Canada's minister for the environment, Peter Kent, said the decision would save the nation some $14 billion in penalties that would accrue for failure to meet emissions targets agreed to by a previous government in the 1997 pact -- the first international accord aimed at reducing global emissions of planet-warming gases.
"As we have said, Kyoto -- for Canada -- is in the past," Kent said, according to a wire transcript forwarded by the environment ministry. Kent had just returned from global climate talks in Durban, South Africa. "As such," he continued, "we are invoking our legal right to formally withdraw from Kyoto."
Canada's conservative government under Stephen Harper, who assumed the title of prime minister in 2006, has long been hostile to the Kyoto agreement, which was ratified by Liberal Party Prime Minister Jean Chrétien in 2002.
The Harper government has charged its predecessors with never making any real attempts to comply with Kyoto's emissions limits. It has also issued concerns, shared by the U.S. and other developed countries, that Kyoto's emissions rules apply only to rich nations, leaving up-and-coming polluters like India and China off the hook.
"While our government has taken action since 2006 to make real reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, under Kyoto Canada is facing radical and irresponsible choices if we are to avoid punishing multi-billion dollar payments," Kent said. Meeting its commitments under Kyoto, he said, would require the equivalent of "removing every car, truck, ATV, tractor, ambulance, police car and vehicle of every kind from Canadian roads."
But the move to quit the Kyoto Protocol, while not unexpected, was met with jeers from environmental groups, who say that Canada has abandoned a long-standing reputation for environmental stewardship in favor of industry and, among other things, development of a controversial and emissions-intensive oil patch in Alberta known as the tar sands.
"It's a very odd feeling to look north and see a country even more irresponsible about climate change than the U.S.," said the author and climate activist Bill McKibben, who has spearheaded protests against the development of the Alberta oil resource. "For a long time, Canada has been seen as one of those countries that solved more problems than they created. But this makes it official: the lure of wealth in the tar sands has really corrupted the government."
Megan Leslie, a member of Canada's parliament and a Halifax-based member of the New Democratic Party, told The Huffington Post in an email that Kent and the conservative government of Stephen Harper were exaggerating the impacts of Canada's participation in Kyoto -- and the penalties associated with failing to meet targets. "He's essentially created a Kyoto bogeyman who will come after your cars and bank accounts," Leslie said. "His spin was reprehensible."
"By withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol, Canada is hiding from having to report our failures to our international partners," she added. "It's a shame that the broken promises and decades of inaction by successive Liberal and Conservative governments have led us to this point."
The Kyoto agreement grew out of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and was adopted in Kyoto, Japan, 14 years ago. It bound more than three dozen industrialized countries to reduce emissions of certain greenhouse gases by an average of slightly more than 5 percent over 1990 levels. The protocol was to take effect only after at least 55 countries, representing 55 percent of global CO2 emissions, had ratified the document. Those conditions were fully met in 2004, and the treaty was entered into force in early 2005.
Europe has made up the bulk of the emissions reductions, and collectively, industrialized countries are on track to achieve the Kyoto goal of reducing their emissions by at least 5.2 percent over 1990 levels. But much of the decrease in emissions is attributed to the collapse of East European and Russian economies in the post-Soviet era, as well as to the current global recession, which has helped to reduce industrial output and overall energy use in many countries.
Canada's most recent inventory of greenhouse gas emissions, submitted to the United Nations earlier this year, showed that while the country had been making year-over-year reductions since 2008, its emissions are still nearly 20 percent higher than they were in 1990.
The country only accounts, however, for about 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The United States, accounting for roughly 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and by far the largest per capita emitter among industrialized nations, refused to participate in the Kyoto Protocol. China recently overtook the U.S. as the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, now accounting for about a quarter of the global total.
As part of a last-minute deal in Durban, nations agreed to briefly extend the Kyoto Protocol, which was set to expire next year, until a new and broader pact that would eventually bring all nations under emissions restrictions is developed by 2015.
"We are committed to working together to address climate change in a way that is, for countries big and small, rich or poor, fair, effective and comprehensive and allows us to continue to create jobs and growth in Canada," Kent said at Monday's press conference. "Canada went to Durban in a spirit of good will. We went committed to being constructive. We went looking to reach an international climate change agreement that covers all major emitters. As we said from the outset, the Kyoto Protocol did not represent the path forward for Canada."
But Matt Horne, the director of climate change activities with the Pembina Institute, a Canadian environmental think tank, said the decision to withdraw from Kyoto was at odds with the country's long-term interests. "While there may not be formal penalties for withdrawal, there will be economic consequences," he said. "If Canada is unwilling to do its fair share by implementing made-in-Canada solutions to climate change, we are inviting made-for-Canada solutions to be imposed on us."